Monday, August 3, 2015

Corpse in a folding chair

According to NPR, two plays have dominated the world of high school theater for the last 76 years: “You Can’t Take It With You” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart – and “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder.

Aside from proving that hard-hitting investigative reporting is still alive and well (I’m awaiting their forthcoming expose disclosing that cats meow when they want something, though we’ll never know exactly what because the feline critters refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Freedom of Information Act), NPR’s finding brings back bittersweet memories of my senior year in high school.

In case you’ve managed to make your way in the world without seeing it in some form, “Our Town” is about the town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, and its inhabitants, including young George Gibbs and Emily Webb, who during the course of the play get married.

The play is narrated by a character called the Stage Manager.

The last act takes place in a cemetery. Emily has died, and she sits among other Grover’s Corners inhabitants who have shuffled off their respective mortal coils and are now sitting on stage, like Emily, in folding chairs.

During the act, Emily is permitted to return to Earth to relive one day: her 12th birthday. For Emily, this turns out to be one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but considering that “the time” was eternity, and considering that she had found herself among as dull a bunch of stick-in-the-grounds as you could ever hope not to meet, I wouldn’t be all that hard on the kid.

And by now I’m sure you’re wondering what my role in all this was. Was I the dashing, handsome George Gibbs? (OK, I admit I knew all along that you weren’t anywhere near wondering that.)

Or maybe the Stage Manager – but surely casting me as that gasbag would be casting against type, right?

I said, right?

OK, OK, I’ll end the suspense – unbate your collective breath as I inform you that I was a corpse in a folding chair – a farmer, to be exact.

Although I appeared as an extra at the end of Act Two – a guest at George and Emily’s wedding – I had nothing to do until the third act, when I declaimed lines like “Aya, right smart farm!” in a New England accent that was so disgracefully shoddy that after the final curtain call, Jessica Fletcher herself ascended the stage and personally horsewhipped me.

While the other two acts were being rehearsed, I’d chat with my classmates – though not too loud, lest you cause the director, Mrs. Jensen (yes, this was 1972 and she was still calling herself “Mrs.”) to blow her whistle at you.

Perhaps my most pleasant memory is playing cards with a couple of girls named Barb and Kris. Barb was a very attractive cheerleader who seemed to have no trace of vanity and was convinced I was a laugh riot. Kris wasn’t a cheerleader but was also good-looking and at least twice as smart as I was. She and I and another classmate appeared together on a local quiz show.

I think the three of us mostly played pitch, which I was pretty good at, but they also tried to teach me poker, which I still can’t play because I can never remember all those combinations of hands, and I’m sure that if you asked me to chew gum while trying to remember them, well, let’s just say the result wouldn’t be pretty.

But all in all, I guess I had a good time doing this play.

But would I, like Emily, like to relive it?

Part of me says yes.

But another part of me remembers two of the cemetery’s other inhabitants – Debbie, who played the gabby Mrs. Soames, and Louie, who played Wally Webb, Emily’s brother.

If I were to do that last act again, along with the same cast, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to do it without thinking of the Sunday night, years in the future, when I’d be at my newspaper job, going over the obits, and finding Louie’s name.

Or the Memorial Day weekend when, while checking over the first edition for errors, I found Debbie’s picture on the obit page. I hadn’t known she was sick; I later learned that illness struck her not long after two of her nephews were struck by some jerk who decided that it would be a great idea to drive into a crowd of people on purpose. One nephew was killed; the other suffered a permanent disability.

Other classmates have also gone – including Barb, whom I never saw again after graduation, though I always wanted to thank her for her kindness toward me.

So perhaps the emotional overload of reliving the whole experience might prove to be too much.

Best to draw a curtain over the past.

Aya, right smart move.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Newsroom memories: Dick Beaudet

It’s about 7:30 on a Thursday night in early autumn, and I’m sitting at a manual typewriter in the newsroom of one of the two newspapers in my town – both newspapers, owned by the same company, are in the same building.

I am 17 years old.

I’m there because I received a letter from the newspaper company, which invited me to join a group the company was forming for high school kids who had shown an interest in journalism. (I had checked off “writing, journalism” as a career interest on a survey that was passed out in school. “Best-selling novelist” somehow wasn’t on the list.)

The program is sponsored by a division of the Boy Scouts of America, though it’s open to both genders and no one has to wear a uniform or (especially lucky for me and society at large) try to start a fire. The idea is for this group to meet every two weeks at the newspaper building to get a taste of newspaper work; there’s supposed to be more to the program than that, including a field trip to the local forestry school.

I liked the idea of joining the program, and when I tried to sell the idea to my parents, it seemed to be a ridiculously easy sell. Only years later will I realize that they jumped at this opportunity on the chance that it might eventually result in a job for their nerdy and phenomenally uncoordinated bookworm of a kid.

On this Thursday night, I’m sitting in the newsroom with a lot of other people my age. We’d already officially joined a couple of weeks before, and this is the second meeting. And while we’re upstairs in the newsroom, our parents are downstairs, watching someone from the Boy Scouts present some kind of charter to the newspapers’ PR guy.

And as we would-be journalists sit at our typewriters, a real-life news guy named Dick Beaudet is talking to us, doing his best imitation (intentional or not) of Perry “Don’t Call Me Chief!” White, Clark Kent’s boss. (A few years later, I will learn that Dick’s subordinates call him “Chiefie” and he apparently doesn’t mind.)

Dick’s spiel goes something like this:

“All right -- you people are going to write a story tonight. Only you won’t have to go out and get the facts, because I’m going to give them to you now! And whoever writes the best story will get it published in tomorrow night’s paper!”

He then proceeds to give us the who, what, where, when and why about the charter ceremony taking place downstairs. Then he tells us to get to work.

I’ve never written a news story in my life, but I’ve read a lot of them. Having somehow learned to read at a very early age, I’ve long been fond of newspapers and as a tot was known to grab the evening paper before my grandmother could get to it.

Matter of fact, I used to look at the ads and ask my mom things like, “What’s a J-A-C-U-Z-Z-I?” My aunt once told me that I was doing this during one of her visits, and my grandmother warned my mother that I might someday ask, “What’s M-O-D-E-S-S?”

“Oh, he already asked that,” my mother said.

“WHAT? Well, what did you say?”

“I said, ‘Oh, those are supplies, dear.’ That satisfied him.”

Which explains why, when it came to intrepid investigative reporting, Woodward and Bernstein never had anything to fear from me.

But as I sit at the typewriter on that Thursday night, I don’t seem to have a really hard time putting the words on paper. I’ve never heard the term “inverted pyramid,” but I somehow know that when you write a basic news story, the important stuff is supposed to go at the top, followed by the rest in descending order of urgency.

So I hand in my six paragraphs (or was it five?), eventually rejoin my parents and go home.

When Friday night’s paper arrives, there it is at the top of the front page of the second section, stripped across five columns, above a big ad.

My story.

It’s not exactly as I wrote it; I think one or two words have been changed (and for good reason), and five or six paragraphs of background copy have been added, but it’s my story, and the stuff I wrote basically got in the paper the way I wrote it.

And for the first time I see these words in print:

By Mark Murphy.

I am sure of very few things in this life, but I do know this: Any writer who claims not to remember his or her first byline – and the accompanying thrill – is lying through his or her cursor.

I’d like to say that as the weeks go by, the newspaper program fulfills all its big promises, but that’s not the case. The main reason seems to be that the person nominally in charge, who is Beaudet’s boss, has dumped everything on Beaudet, who on Thursday nights has enough trouble trying to put together the advance pages for Sunday. Years later I will learn that Beaudet getting dumped on by his boss is an occurrence as rare as the setting of the sun.

The group, which had maybe 70 kids at first, dwindles as it becomes clear that the program isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and they get bored. One member, who seems a bit old for a high schooler – and smokes cigars, to boot – storms out one night after Beaudet gently (for Beaudet) informs him that no, the group is not going to be publishing a literary journal.

I never get another byline as a member of this group, though one night Beaudet hands me a press release from a state senator and asks me to turn it into a story.

A few weeks after I hand it in, he comes up to me.

“You Mark Murphy?” he growls in full Perry White mode.

I tell him that I am, and he hurls a tearsheet at me and walks away.

It’s the rewritten press release, cut out of the paper – published pretty much as I wrote it, though with no byline.

The program ends shortly before my senior year ends. I go to college and afterward am lucky enough to get a job on the copy desk of the morning paper. Beaudet is still working nights for the evening paper. Sometimes I have to talk to him for professional reasons. He never mentions that I was a member of his group, and he treats me as a fellow pro, a fact that still makes me proud.

Many years later, he retires, neither of us ever having brought up my membership in the high schoolers’ group.

I send him a card congratulating him on his retirement and finally thanking him for his gruff kindness during my high school days.

Not long after, he comes up to me at a company clambake and thanks me for the card, saying it meant a lot to him.

We don’t talk long – he’s no longer gruff, but he’s a long way from touchy-feely, and I’m fine with that, and for once I’m proud of myself for sending the card.

That’s the last time we ever talk; not too long after that, he is gone.

As I write this, I’m sure I am a lot older than Dick was when he was bellowing at us high schoolers and trying to get the Sunday advance pages out while grumbling not too quietly – and not particularly caring who heard him grumbling – about his boss.

And during the express train ride from my teens to my 60s, I suppose I’ve tried to follow Dick’s example, mentoring other copy editors and interns. For long before the phrase “Pay it forward” became popular, Dick, whether he meant to or not, somehow taught me to do just that.

But even if I could “pay it forward” into the next millennium, I could never fully repay what I owe to Dick Beaudet.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

From the Department of No Good Deed, etc.

I recently bought an item from an Amazon seller. It came on time, and it was what I wanted. Today I received an email from Amazon asking me to rate the seller. I clicked on a link and gave the seller an excellent review -- meaning that I checked "Yes" under "Item arrived by July 14, 2015?" and "Item as described by the seller?"

Then, ignoring a box in which I could comment further, I hit "Submit," but that wasn't good enough. I was told that my comment "is too short. Please elaborate on your transaction experience," which in olden times we used to call a "purchase." So I wrote that I bought the thing, it came on time and it was what I wanted.

Hope that's elaborate enough....

Literary note: Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' turns 100

Memo to Gregor Samsa:

Yo, Gregor -- here it is 100 years (the 21st century, even!) and you STILL haven't posted your disgusting puss on Instagram?! Get with the program, man! If archy the cockroach could handle a manual typewriter, you oughta be able to manage a selfie stick!

P.S. I myself once had an idea for a delicious breakfast treat, called Kafkakake. Only problem: No matter how much of it you ate, you could never finish it -- there was always some left.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The best TV ad you'll probably never see

First, a warning – a caveat lector, if you will:

I am about to describe something that I saw at least 45 years ago, so there’s a good chance – a 110 percent chance, I would say – that I won’t get all the details right.

Understood? Then here goes…..

We fade in on a typical living room – typical for the 1960s or early 1970s, that is.

Dad is in his easy chair, reading the paper.

Mom is on the couch, possibly knitting.

Just another quiet night at home.

Until the door opens and their teenage daughter walks in.

She is dressed for a date, but she is in tears.

Both parents, alarmed, go to her.

“What’s wrong, dear?”

The girl can barely get the words out.

“It’s Herbert … he says … he says … we need THIS!”

And she holds out the sponsor’s product – a deodorant! Or maybe it’s a deodorant soap. Whatever.

Mom bursts into tears, but Dad’s Irish is up as he looks out the window.

“Is he still out there? I’ll tell him a thing or two!” And he storms out, determined to settle Herbert’s hash.

Quick dissolve to shot of sponsor’s product, which the announcer quickly but smoothly describes in glowing terms.

Then back to the living room, where Mom and the girl, just barely able to hold themselves together, are looking at the door.

Dad walks in, defeated and on the verge of tears, and looks at Mom.

“You know, Edna,” he says, “the boy makes a lot of sense!”

Then he completely loses it while still managing to say, once again, “The boy makes a lot of sense!”

Of course by this time Mom and the daughter have lost it again, and the three of them embrace, tearfully resigned to their fate as social pariahs.

Then a quick shot of the product, a few quick closing words from the announcer, and we’re done.

This may be the funniest TV commercial I’ve ever seen, and I hope I’ve done it justice.

It manages to kid the product by exaggerating the trauma of body odor, and it does it quickly and efficiently – while still praising the product.

It gets the job done so efficiently that you only later stop to wonder why, after unceremoniously dumping his date, Herbert is still parked outside.

You could argue that he is checking his messages, but this was years before the Internet. Of course you also could argue that Herbert is a really brilliant kid (though falling a little short in the tact department) and that he has already invented his own Internet and email system, which of course leaves open the question of who would be sending him messages.

But as Alfred Hitchcock would say when someone questioned the logic of a plot point in one of his movies, “Who cares? You believed it as you were watching it, right? And that’s all that matters.” (OK, those weren’t his exact words, but you get my point – and his.)

I wish I could send you a link to this commercial, but it doesn’t appear to be anywhere on the Internet. I tried to find it on YouTube, but after several attempts to dig it out, I quit.

I freely admit that I might not have dug deeply enough. What we really need these days is an Internet equivalent of Lloyd Bridges.

(To my younger readers: Lloyd Bridges was the star of a show called “Sea Hunt,” in which he played a scuba diver named Mike Nelson – the guy on Mystery Science Theater was named for him – who every week would go searching for sunken treasure, sunken satellites, sunken corned beef sandwiches, whatever. And it seemed that every week, some bad guy would confront him underwater and try to cut off his air hose. Mr. Bridges, now deceased, was the father of Beau and Jeff Bridges. I’m sure that Beau and Jeff learned a lot about acting from watching Lloyd. I’ll bet they also, unlike Dad, figured out that they should never go underwater without a full supply of air and a finely whetted meat cleaver.)

Another point about this ad, which may not come as a surprise if you know a little about the history of advertising (I know a teensy-weensy bit):

You probably noticed that in describing the commercial, I never mentioned the name of the product.

This is because I don’t know the name of the product – or, as I said before, whether it was a deodorant or deodorant soap.

And this is a problem that some TV advertisers of that time ran into.

This was the era of funny commercials – ads that won a lot of awards. These were ads that the public liked and remembered.

So that if you asked Jane or John Q. Public if they’d seen that funny deodorant ad, they would probably say, “Oh, yes! Isn’t it a scream?”

But if you asked them what product it was pushing, they would go into full-blown Ralph Kramden “homina homina homina” mode.

This did not please sponsors, so funny commercials were out of favor for a while.

Luckily you can still see quite a few of the ones from this era on YouTube, including some of the Alka Seltzer ads that remain classics.

An actor named Jack Somack never, as far as I know, never won an Oscar, Tony or Grammy, but he was assured of immortality after this ad, which, 46 years later, still makes me laugh.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Winters of our discomposure

I know I told you last time that my next post would be about one of the funniest TV commercials I’ve ever seen, but while I was doing the research for that piece, I was sidetracked.

By a woman from my past.

How to explain her?

Maybe I should start with the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome – the idea that anyone who befriends Jessica Fletcher, or is befriended by her, will be wrongly accused of murder. Which means that it’s a very good idea to steer clear of Ms. Fletcher, lest you inevitably find yourself booked and printed in a capital case that, with your luck, would probably turn out to be the only one Jessica couldn’t crack.

The 1960s equivalent of Jessica Fletcher was a woman named Katy Winters.

Katy was neither a mystery novelist nor an amateur sleuth. And instead of a series with hour-long episodes, Katy was on for only a minute – sometimes only 30 seconds – during other people’s shows.

Still, Katy was a woman to avoid – even more so than Jessica. For while a friendship or even the merest acquaintanceship with Jessica might start you on the not-so-primrose path to death row, getting anywhere near Katy could lead to an infinitely worse disaster: being exposed on national television as someone who smells as if you just stepped ashore after a two-year tour of duty on a garbage scow.

Because, as you’ve probably figured out, Katy Winters peddled deodorant – Secret, to be exact.

All of Katy’s commercials had the same plot: Someone she knows is facing some sort of minor crisis that is stressful enough without the added fear of smelling like something the cat dragged in with one paw while holding its nose with the other.

The ad agency showed great creativity in devising variations of this plot: A couple is about to open a new restaurant; another couple is about to enter a costume contest as both ends of a horse; someone else (played by Maggie Peterson, who was Charlene Darling on “The Andy Griffith Show”) is about to take her road test.

Never fear: Katy always had some Secret handy to save the day. She probably loaded her pockets with the stuff -- both roll-on and aerosol – before she left the house each day. If the EPA had been around then, she would probably have been arrested as a one-woman ozone layer assassination squad.

A dip into that Sargasso Sea known as the Internet indicates that Katy was portrayed by Ann (or maybe Anne) Starr Roberts, who doesn’t seem to have any other credits. If anyone knows what happened to her – or if she herself is still around – please feel free to write in.

The Katy Winters ads ran for quite some time, and you knew she had become an Official Cultural Phenomenon when Johnny Carson began making jokes about her.

I was a kid when the ads ran in the 1960s, and I remembered her as being an annoying, middle-aged busybody.

But when you’re a 12-year-old, anyone above 20 is middle-aged if not out-and-out decrepit, and when I looked at a few of her ads on YouTube yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, far from being over the hill, Katy was relatively young – and more than relatively cute.

If I had been a few years older, and if Katy had ever given me a come-hither look (I mostly get stay-yonder looks), I suspect I would have come running – after first emptying my 401K or robbing a bank, or both, so as to have enough money to send her to a first-rate psychiatrist who could rid her of her perspiration complex.

Ah well. So much for what might have been. Next time I promise I will write about that other ad – cross my heart and hope not to offend.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Two not-so-great moments in advertising

One day, possibly in the late 1960s, I heard a catchy tune coming from my brother Michael’s bedroom.

My brother liked, among others, The Doors, the Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker.

But this tune wasn’t from any of them. It had a marchlike beat and arrangement (“Sweet cream ladies, forward march…”), like a faux Salvation Army anthem, and I liked it.

When I expressed interest in the song, Michael told me it was called “Sweet Cream Ladies” (surprise!) and was sung by the Box Tops.

He also told me that the song was about prostitutes.

Oh.

Um, OK.

Then again, if I’d listened more closely to the lyrics, maybe little old naïve me would have figured this out from lyrics like “Let them satisfy the ego of the male / Let them fabricate success to those who fail.”

So imagine my surprise when, some time later, while watching some prime-time network TV, I came upon a new commercial from a food company. The product was some kind of whipped cream – Cool Whip, Dream Whip, Dreamy Cool Whip, whatever – and as I recall (I have to rely on memory because you won’t find this ad on YouTube, and you’ll soon realize why), it featured a montage of smiling Stepfordian wives strutting from their kitchens to their dining rooms while carrying a bowl of the sponsor’s ambrosia.

The lyrics (so help me, Don Draper) began: “Cream pie ladies, forward march….” And yep, that same tune – same arrangement, even.

It was comforting to know that someone on Madison Avenue was at least as naïve as I was.

And I suspect that all the Box Tops had to buy new sneakers because when they ran to the bank in record time to cash their checks before the food company got wise, the friction from the pavement annihilated their Adidases.

I’m sure that someone did tip off the company -- after I saw the ad maybe one more time a week or two later, it disappeared forever.

I would love to have been a fly on the conference room wall during the next agency-client meeting.

Then again, perhaps there was no such meeting. Perhaps the president of the food company merely sneaked into the ad agency president’s home late one evening, walked into the agency chief’s bedroom, placed a $20 bill on the dresser and skulked out.

Surely that would have gotten the food company’s message across. And surely any shame and dread the agency president felt about becoming the laughingstock of the entire industry would have been at least partially offset by relief at the thought that there was now no need to go through the hassle of reserving a conference room.

And I also wonder whether the ad might have so impressed the denizens of the local “sporting house” that they figured that maybe they, too, should advertise, or at least set up some exploratory meetings with the agency.

If those meetings ever took place, I would love to see the expense sheets – you never know just how creative a creative director can be.

The other ad I referred to in the headline involved a brand of dishwashing liquid.

Actually it was one of a number of ads from the same campaign, each of them conveying the same message.

Each ad featured identical twins. And this being the 1960s, you won’t be surprised to learn that the twins were female, young and attractive, but in a homespun way – the type of young woman that Ricky and David Nelson would have been proud to take home to Harriet.

The point of each ad was that the twins – in this particular ad, let’s call them Jan and Jane – looked so much alike that you couldn’t tell them apart.

Unless – and it was a big, 72-point Unless – you looked at their hands.

Because Jan, who used the sponsor’s product, had a perfect pair of hands, each of them a thing of beauty and a joy forever, or at least for the next minute of air time.

But Jane? Tsk tsk tsk. Her hands were raw, rough, not good looking at all. I won’t go into the details – for all I know, you might be reading this during dinner – but let’s just say that Jane’s hands were supposedly in such bad shape that you were sure – you just knew – that the local health officials were only moments away from breaking down the door and placing a bell around her neck.

And of course I don’t have to tell you that Jane used – gasp – a competitor’s dishwashing liquid.

All of which prompts (NOT begs) a few questions:

Why would the same household have TWO brands of dishwashing liquid?

Or was Jane a masochist who wanted her hands to look bad? Was it her way of distancing herself from people? Was she so afraid of reaching out to people that she sabotaged herself to keep anyone else from hurting her?

The commercial never even began to probe these questions – you can do only so much in a minute, especially when you have so much soap to peddle.

But my main reason for mentioning the ad is the way it began:

A two-shot of Jan and Jane.

“Hi, I’m Jan.”

“And I’m Jane.”

Then, the two of them together:

“WE’RE OFTEN CONFUSED!”

Swear to God, that’s what they said. I was only maybe 15 years old – not exactly an idiot, but neither was I what Jimmy Durante would call “duh toast of the intellectuals” – but even I knew how ridiculous and unintentionally funny this phrasing was, as if 60 seconds of sexism weren’t bad enough.

Next time, to be fair, I’ll tell you about an old commercial that’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen but which, alas, is also apparently not on YouTube.